Aileen is lying on the bed with one arm crooked up over her eyes.
‘This can’t go on,’ says Jackie, her sister-in-law. ‘I mean, look at her. Paula’s got enough on her plate as it is.’
Paula is Aileen’s elder sister. She smiles and shakes her head. ‘I’d like to do more,’ she says. ‘But it’s not the world’s biggest flat, as you can see, and David’s laid up with his back.’
‘I’d just like to know what you think you’re going to do about it,’ says Jackie, leaning forward for emphasis. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve got to say it how it is. One of the nurses told me, in confidence. She said you won’t get anything without making a fuss, darling. And she was right. We’ve tried playing along, it hasn’t got us anywhere, so now I’m damn well going to make a fuss.’
‘It’s okay, Jackie,’ says Paula.
‘No it isn’t!’
I haven’t met any of them before. I’ve been sent to conduct the basic health screen, and as usual, all I’ve been given are the basic facts: seventy-eight year old, multiple ambulance call-outs with shortness of breath, anxiety, abdo pain. All Aileen’s obs are fine. I’ve taken some blood, dipped her urine, and now I’m writing up the results. It’s a stressful situation, difficult to negotiate, particularly as there’s a great deal of back-story I just don’t know.
Aileen starts to cry again. Paula sits next to her on the bed and rubs her shoulder in a straight-armed kind of way.
‘Seriously though,’ says Jackie. ‘This can’t go on. We’ve been promised this, that and the other before, and nothing ever happens. She can’t go home like this. She needs someone to sit with her tonight. The family can’t do it no more. We’re all exhausted. I mean, we appreciate you coming out and everything, but who’s to say you won’t be like everyone else and promise things that never materialise?’
‘I’m sorry you’ve had bad experiences in the past, and you’re right, it can’t go on like this. Our focus is to prevent people going in to hospital unnecessarily, so we’ll do everything we can. But I’ll be honest with you, Jackie – night sitters are in huge demand, and we don’t have access to that many in the first place.’
‘Well there you go.’
She sits back and folds her arms.
‘It’s a funding issue,’ I tell her. ‘With all the cut-backs there just isn’t the money. So things like night sitters get rationed pretty tight, and they tend to go to those patients with really acute medical needs.’
‘It shouldn’t be like this,’ says Jackie.
‘Absolutely. It shouldn’t. But I’d rather be realistic about what you can expect. Anyway, looking on the bright side, there’s still lots we can do.’
‘Oh yeah? Like what?’
‘Like making sure that physically everything’s okay. That’s why I did all those tests. Then I can get one of our social workers to talk to you about your living situation. That’s another thing. And if you need some care support in the short term, people popping in to make sure Aileen’s okay, eating and drinking, taking meds and the rest of it – we can sort that out, too. And I can ask one of our mental health nurses to come and talk to you.’
Aileen suddenly pushes herself away from Paula into a sitting position.
‘Mental health? What does he mean, mental health? He’s not going to put me in one of them places, is he? I’m not sick in my head, am I?’
She groans and presses her fists to her temples.
‘Try not to get yourself worked up, Aileen,’ says Paula.
‘It’s okay, Aileen. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s just someone with special training who can talk to you about how you’re feeling. And you know – lots of people have problems with things like anxiety and depression. Some really famous people have struggled with it. Winston Churchill used to get depressed. I think he called it his black dog. But he did all right, didn’t he? Churchill?’
‘I wonder how he did cope,’ says Paula, gently picking some loose strands of hair away from Aileen’s face.
‘Brandy and cigars, weren’t it?’ says Jackie. ‘Maybe you should write her a scrip for that.’